Category Archives: pop culture & media

pop culture & media

Lo Sirong (羅思容) — Exploring Hakka Womanhood

Taiwanese singer-songwriter Lo Sirong (羅思容) is one of the few female musicians who have written and recorded original/traditional tunes in Hakka, a dialect of a group of migrant people who originated in central China. [Hakka is a melodic language but I regret that I don’t understand it. My father’s parents are both Hakka and they would speak Hakka to each other only when they wanted to communicate something incognito in front of their children.]

Lo Sirong sings about Hakka womanhood in contemporary Taiwan. Her music engenders a meditation on somber, chilling, and playful aspects of life. She rejoices her deep connections with her daughters, mourns the death of those who lost their lives during the White Terror period, and contemplates on domestic life, autonomy, work, homesickness, etc. Lo’s music straddles the worlds of both Hakka folk music and American blues.

“For One Coin, Make 24 Knots” explores the conditions of modern womanhood from the notions of independence to marriage. I’m drawn to the interplay of the lonesome harmonica, voice, and guitar. Her voice freewheels out of the conventional metrical temporality, a quality I hear in traditional Hakka tunes and country blues (Robert Johnson or Son House). In her liner notes, Lo writes the following:

‘Be realistic,’ ‘achieve,’ ‘fall in love,’ ‘get married’–a cacophony of expectations heard by women today. This song tells of a modern woman who, despite her personal and economic independence, struggles with pressure of marriage.

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“Everyday” opens with a melancholy passage by a Yehu (a two-string spike fiddle made of a coconut shell, similar to the erhu). Her liner notes indicate that this song “voices the thoughts of a woman struggling to break free of the structured constraints of gender discrimination in traditional society.” The call and response between Lo’s voice and the yehu animates an internal dialog reflecting on the meanings of life from the perspective of a mother looking at her child. Her lyrics talk about how her observations of her daughter’s sweetness during her sleep instigates her to day dream like a child. She improvises her vocal part and attributes the song to “the Hakka mountain song genre, the source of of all Hakka folk music.”

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In “The Vine Entwining the Tree,” Lo’s chilling voice hovers like spirits. The bass erhu creeps in and out of the foreground of the song. This song is titled after a historical novel about the tragedy of the White Terror in Taiwan written by Lan Bozhou. Based on the stage adaptation of this novel, this song cites a Tibetan mantra of Green Tara to console “the spirits of the people who, lovingly and without regret, sacrificed their lives.”

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[This post is instigated by an email I wrote my (Mermaid) friend Catherine Monnes whose wild musical explorations are ever inspiring.]

pop culture & media

A Brief Note on Luo Dayou & Chang Chen-Yue: From Folk Music, Taike to Superband in Taiwan

A couple days ago, I had a phone conversation with Jonathan Bing, a producer who’s working on a film about Taiwanese folk and popular music with director Wayne Wang. We began a conversation about the transformations of folk music in Taiwanese popular music. In his followup email, Jonathan sent me the biography of Chang Chen-Yue and Luo Dayou (or Lo Ta Yu) as key figures in this musical movement. In particular, Chang and Luo’s work intersects and is highlighted in the Superband, a group that brings together four of the most iconic Mandopop artists in the last decade or two.

httpvh://www.youtube.com/watch?v=N98Q6Cm6B3I

Below is my email responding to our phone conversation and Jonathan’s followup email about Chang and Luo. Here I have set out to contextualize what I know of the historical folk music movement in Taiwan in the 1970s and its cultural remnants in the 1990s and 2000s. My knowledge of the subject is by no means comprehensive. But I’ve tried my best to point out the shifting politics surrounding “the folk” in pop music discourses and political contradictions of the Superband.

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I grew up as a huge fan of Luo Dayou. I especially love the earlier (1980s) part of his repertoire. I do think it’s interesting to consider Luo’s music in the context of pan-Chinese pop music, a musical bridge between Taiwan and the PRC. During the last presidential election, he came forward to express his opposition against the DPP (Democratic Progressive Party) and, in a less explicit way, support for the KMT. In general, his musical successes in Taiwan and the PRC throughout the last few decades enabled him to navigate smoothly amidst the polemics regarding Taiwan and its status in relation to the People’s Republic of China and the United Nations. Luo, however, is not immediately tied to the folk music movement in Taiwan in the 1970s, though his contribution to the Folk Song movement is remembered to be more significant than it was at the time because of its commercial success.

I think the best source in English on the Taiwanese Folk Song Movement is actually Yeh Yueh-Yu’s dissertation on popular music and cinema in Taiwan. In it, Yeh traces the folk song movement in the 1970s to a group of leftist, Marx-reading youth intellectuals. These young intellectuals fueled the  Modern Folk Song movement. The most iconic singer songwriters of this movement is perhaps Yang Hsuan. Yeh also distinguishes this movement from the genre known as “Campus Folk Song,” which was a product of the recording industry’s efforts to commodify this music. The politics of this modern folk song movement was mixed. Most parts of the movement were state- and KMT-sponsored. But there were other strands of dissent, for example Hu De Fu (Kimbo) who represented the Taiwanese Aboriginal groups and spoke up against the government. There were also musicians who advocated for the independence of Taiwan. These voices were generally repressed by the martial law of the KMT administration.

I have a feeling that this movement is way more complicated than it is remembered. Taiwanese scholars have produced quite a bit of literature on the topic. Chang Chao-Wei’s(張釗維) book is probably the most and substantive and definitive work on subject. But it’s in Mandarin. Moskowitz’s book Cries of Joy, Songs of Sorrow, has a tiny section on campus songs but he mostly frames this topic within the larger political environment of Taiwan’s exclusion from the United Nations, thus leaving the story rather uncomplicated.

I have always associated Chang Chen Yue with the Taike movement. People in Taiwan use the term “Taike” to refer to a kind of Taiwanese pride. It’s associated with rural, working-class  masculinity. Specifically images of betel nuts and flip-flops come to mind. Taike became a pop culture chic in the late 1990s as youth started  to fashion themselves, speaking in Taiwanese Holo dialect, wearing flashy outfits while signifying a rootsy, local identity apart from influences of Japanomania. Also Taike became associated with the Taiwanization movement and the DPP’s political agenda of Taiwanese independence from China.

Taike as a concept became culturally pronounced around the same time when many punk-inspired musicians and bands emerged in Taiwan, particularly in Taichung, a city known as a political and cultural underdog to Taipei. Taike artists and fans embraced a “local” Taiwanese spirit, apart from Western pop, Mandopop and Jpop. These artists wrote songs mostly in Taiwanese Holo and ushered in a punk, raw aesthetic in performance and recordings. Chang’s song “Ai Di Chu Ti Yen”–characterized by ska rhythm, punk raw vocals, blue notes, Nakashi feel — embodies a kind of roots-y style common among these bands. These artists spread the ethos of “independence” that ambiguously connotes both a political independence from China and a position of independence from mainstream pop music (Mandopop). In addition to Chang Chen Yue, artists labeled as “Taike rock” include Bobby Chen, Wu-Bai, MC HotDog, as well as the now mainstream May Day and Soda Green. These artists were featured on the Taike Rock concert in 2007. The documentary concert video of this concert was put out by Rock Records, which ironically is one of the two major record labels of popular music in Taiwan.

httpvh://www.youtube.com/watch?v=wjlrJl1OlfY

I’m not sure if there’s much written in the English language about the Taike movement. I did attend a paper presentation about Taike at the last Asia chapter meeting of the International Association for the Studies of Popular Music (IASPM) in Hong Kong. Also Taiwanese pop music studies scholar Ho Tung-Hung has a paper abstract on Taike rock.

Given Chang Chen-Yue’s aboriginal heritage and affiliation with Taike (DPP-leaning) and Luo’s support of the KMT (particularly during the last presidential election in Taiwan), their “collaboration” in the Superband is worth a closer look. My sense is that the creation of the Superband is a commercial move. But it may also be a move toward an international exposure, perhaps representing Taiwan to the Chinese diaspora and to the world in less politicized manner. The inclusion Chau Wakin, a Hong-Kong-born Mandopop star, furthers the pan-Chinese front of the band.

This stuff is so complex. Most of what I’ve said comes from my own experiences with the music. Other parts come from my not-so-systematic research on the topic from the perspective of an ethnomusicologist and a musician-advocate for Taiwanese music (in the context of my band Dzian!). I hope that I will continue to delve into this topic. Maybe I will write a paper on this topic to present at the IASPM Asia chapter meeting in Taipei next summer.

pop culture & media research

Locating LA Punk in Chinatown

Watching The Decline of the Western Civilization today (on Youtube), I learned about the importance of the venues in Chinatown in the emerging punk and hardcore music scene in east LA in the late 1970s and early 1980s. Many bands performed at these two Chinatown venues: Hong Kong Cafe and Madame Wong. Both restaurants/clubs are no longer in business. The competition between the two venues was dubbed as the “Chinatown punk wars” by the LA Times in 1979.

After a quick search on Google, I found a few blog posts on this interesting historical moments, most of which are documented on a blog about The Go-Go’s, an all-girl punk / new wave band that emerged around that time. These blog posts include current (circa late 2000s) narratives around the venues and pictures of the buildings where the restaurants and clubs existed. I also found a short, pointed interactive piece (consisting of map, text, and audio interview) on this historical moment created by KCET as a part of the Restoring Chinatown series. Facebook has a group dedicated for individual users to post media related to each of the venues (Madame Wong | Hong Kong Cafe). Also on Myspace, there is a page dedicating to the memorializing of the Hong Kong Cafe. On the academic side, I found a paper abstract written by a film and media studies PhD candiate at UCLA named Laurel Westrup. She gave the paper at EMP Pop Conference earlier this year.

I’m strangely attracted to this topic. But I’m not sure what my attraction entails. I know that it’s definitely related to my fascination with LA and excitement for moving to LA. I also think that this could be a seed for a new digital project. The KCET’s project can be a start of what I conceived as an in-depth interactive investigation of the interconnections between music of the “underground,” immigrant communities, and place, to unfurl the hidden discourses behind the often-times white-centered punk rock narratives.

Also, I’m interested in unraveling the immigrant restaurateur’s side of the story. The LA article depicts Esther Wong, the proprietor of Madame Wong, as an uptight club owner who was interested in booking bands that wouldn’t draw a rowdy crowd. Specifically, Wong was known to book bands identified as “new wave,” a term used to describe a version of punk rock sound catering to the mass. Wong had a policy of excluding bands who have played at the competing venue Hong Kong Cafe. In the 1979 article in the LA Times, Wong was quoted for saying, “If a band plays the Hong Kong one night then comes to me the next, no – I wouldn’t book them because that would be bad business.” The booking agent Barry Seidel at the Hong Kong Cafe appeared to have a more populist attitude. In response, Seidel expressed that a good band would draw an audience regardless of where they played the night before. The opposition between Wong and Seidel seems racialized as Wong was portrayed as the Dragon Lady [part 2 of Summa and Spurrier’s video series]; and Seidel seems liberal, “reasonable,” and “punk-rock,” resonating with the punk ethos of embracing the abject. The Hong Kong Cafe explicitly welcomes the bands rejected by Madame Wong. This opposition puts Wong on the money side, and Seidel on the music/punk side of the ideological binary upheld by many punk rockers.

Going beyond a white-centered narrative, the Latino presence in LA punk scene has been recognized. Michelle Habell-Pallán has researched the Latino/a experience of LA punk rock. [Read about Latino punk in the 1990s.]

I wonder what the Asian American experience of punk rock in LA might have been? In light of the Chinatown as an important site of the punk emergence, how does this factor into the relationship between punk rockers (disenfranchised youth, white, Latino, black, and Asian Americans) to the Chinese club owners? Even in Virginia, from my experiences of interacting with local music scenes in Richmond and Charlottesville, I’ve noticed that many of the music venues are Chinese-owned, for example, Nancy Raygun in Richmond and the Outback Lodge in Charlottesville.

Also, how does playing in Chinatown affect the sound and ideologies of these punk rock bands? There are lots of songs about the food, culture, and people of Chinatown in rock music history. The Siouxsie and the Banshees have a song — “Hong Kong Garden” — about a restaurant in Chinatown. According to Wikipedia, Siouxsie Sioux has mentioned that the song is a tribute to a Chinese restaurant that the band used to frequent. The song is also a reaction to skinhead punks’ terrorizing of the Chinese workers at the restaurant. David Bowie sings a song about “China Girl” and the official music video of the song is set in a Chinatown. In both instances, the song enlists orientalist musical references including gongs, pentatonic modes, and dotted rhythm to contrive a shallow Chineseness for the non-Chinese audience. These musical tokens, especially when infused with the power chords, omnipresent in songs with punk sensibility, have made a unique sonic space in rock music history.

When I get to LA, I will be in the field with the GPS tracking device on my phone turned on, exploring Chinatown with a set of new intentions. I will bring my digital audio recording device with the hope to collect some stories from the Chinese business owners in the area.

pop culture & media research

A Digital Experiment: Monitoring the Visitor Geography of Vicki Leekx

Locations of visitors to this page

Monitoring the location of the IP addresses of viewers of http://VickiLeekx.com [M.I.A.’s cyberpunk alter-ego]

Starting date: February 28, 2011, regretfully 2 months after Vicki Leekx was launched

Tool: ClusterMaps

pop culture & media research

ViCKi LEEKX, Cyberpunk, and Me – A Digital Postcolonial Critique

At a coffee shop in downtown Dover, New Hampshire, I get a tweet from The Kominas about M.I.A.’s latest mixtape Vicki Leekx. I follow hyperlink included in the tweet and land on a blog post on MTVDesi that ruthlessly critiques M.I.A.’s mixtape (this post has been removed for some reason). The author claims that Vicki Leekx is the beginning of the end of MIA’s career. Meanwhile, The Kominas carries on a short conversation with its friend @bdvz in Sydney, both expressing support for M.I.A.’s politico-musical agenda. Quickly pointing at another link, I jump to M.I.A.’s mixtape site, created exclusively for her listeners to download her mixtape. A simple website, Vickleekx.com is presented with a design scheme reminiscent of web pages of the early to mid 1990s. A mash up of low-tech-looking images includes on the right, a large spinning globe, and the left, two identical overlapping screenshots of a browser window, a large “ViCKi LEEKX” banner in a shiny visually loud golden font. After downloading and zooming on the “clip art” graphics below the banner, hacking my way through the visual scheme of the website, I discover further graphical details, for instance, the text “United States Federal Reserve System” the embalm superimposed over an image of a globe. Other textual and image iconography of the Internet, I think, represents the polemics regarding freedom of speech and global communication in the so-called Internet age [image below]. Finally I click on the giant red “DOWNLOAD” button on the bottom of the page to download the mixtape file. Now listening to M.I.A. rapping about media freedom and Sri Lankan shoutouts over thirty-something-minute continuous mashup comprised of digital blips and samples of media cliche, I continue to browse the web.

Figure xx: Screenshot of Vickileekx.com, captured on January 12, 2011.

Born Mathangi “Maya” Arulpragasam, M.I.A. is a British rapper of Sri Lankan descent whose claim to fame worldwide was her song “Paper Planes” on the soundtrack of blockbuster hit Slumdog Millionaire (Boyle 2008). Daughter of a Tamil political activist, M.I.A.’s music centralizes political themes, especially toward immigrant rights, and expresses an audacity to challenge governmental and corporate authorities. Around the time she released her third album Maya in spring 2010, M.I.A. began to speak up about information politics and Internet censorship. In the midst of the heated discussions about WikiLeaks, over the exposing of confidential governmental and corporate documents via the Internet, the rapper expressed a public support for WikiLeaks. Last November, M.I.A. made an announcement of her (Internet) alter ego dubbed as Vicki Leekx.

Vicki Leekx is not a direct endorsement of, but a project perhaps inspired by WikiLeaks. Similar to WikiLeaks, M.I.A.’s alter ego (and mixtape) characterizes a possibility for social changes through disseminating cultural content on the Internet. WikiLeaks has posed a threat to national security; the U.S., China, Iceland, and Australia have filed lawsuits against the website. It has challenged the internatinoal financial infrastructures maintained by corporate power and control. Similarly, M.I.A.’s “Vicki Leekx” project targets those of media, cultural, and political power. Perhaps her penchant for conceiving of the Internet as a free space is affirmed by her recent battle with media censorship. After finding out that Youtube had pulled her controversial music video of “Born Free”, M.I.A. self-released the video by hosting the video on her website and announcing the link, along with a disparaging remark on YouTube.

More explicitly than WikiLeakx, Vicki Leekx is positioned within a postcolonialist, pro-minoritarian struggle, a political context that M.I.A. has articulated in her music and social media. The term “Vicki Leekx” is a phonetic play on “Wiki Leaks.” The phonetic substitution of a V for a W inflects with a South Asian accent within English pronunciation. In ethnicizing the English pronunciation of WikiLeaks, M.I.A. evokes the less heard colonized subject position of the desi in her project.

M.I.A.’s postcolonialist cyberpunk mission of VickiLeekx should not have come as surprise. The rapper began a music leakage project by hosting un-released tracks on one-off websites with provocative domain names, and then sharing the links on Twitter. She set off this leaking rampage by announcing yesthelittlepeoplewillneverwinbuttheycanfuckshitup.com during her North American tour in September 2010. Equally actively, M.I.A. shares news stories about politics around immigration, war crimes, and refugees from Sri Lanka on Twitter. She sometimes couples news story links with web leakage of un-released tracks. Along with a link to a news story about the asylum seekers in Australia, M.I.A. announced a newly created website called 4THEPEOPLEONTHEBOAT.com. Upon visit, the website automatically streams M.I.A.’s song “You Can Have My Money, But You Can’t Have Me”, and displays 8-bit moving graphics of a suspended spinning globe targeted by four rotating firing guns. In an earlier tweet, M.I.A. explains, “I PUT THIS OUT! I KNOW THE MEDIA GIVES CREDIT TO WHITE DUDES! that white dude playin poker gif is literal.” With this music video site, M.I.A. has crystallized a connection between her network music project and her interest in engaging a new digital cultural warfare for “the boat” people. In December 2010, she provoked her digital mission in explicit terms: “WE GROWIN UP IN MIDDLE OF A DIGITAL RUKUS! THEY CAN TRY TO FUCK US, I AINT PUTTIN ON THE STOPPERS WE GO BE HACKERS.. meds+feds+ in bed !” M.I.A. screams, in all caps, in order to advocate for a cyberpunk revolution among immigrants, refugees, and other subaltern groups that she has shown alliance for in the past (Powers 2010). M.I.A. dropped the mixtape online making the file downloadable after midnight on January 1, 2011. Ten days after she self-released her mixtape, M.I.A. tweeted a picture of children of South Asian descent (Sri Lankan?) huddling around four desktop computers. She dubbed the image as “!V!I!C!K!I!L!E!E!K!X! STREET TEAM ! 11/1/11”.

In a way, leaking a national security document is similar to immigration, a leakage of citizenry. Both instances challenge the borders of a nation-state. Both are symbolic infractions of the integrity of nation-states. Foregrounding a “leaky” logic, M.I.A. has created an immigrant frontier on the Internet via Vicki Leekx and her other music websites. In this cyberpunk space, the figure of the immigrant is spotlighted. It no longer lives in threat or on fringes of illegality. It lives in comfort, legalistically and existentially. M.I.A. is the mastermind gamer-architect behind the design of this space between fiction and reality; in it, the immigrant makes up the legitimate citizenry. More than 160,000 of her followers on Twitter, including me, happily wander within and around it.

This cyberpunk frontier is unlike the Orientliast one as characterized by Wendy Hui Kyong Chun in her contribution to edited volume AsianAmeric.Net (2003). Commenting on cyberpunk fiction and films of the 1980s to 1990s, Chun notes the racializing and engendering movements within the cyberspace. She highlights the dynamic of “high-tech Orientalism” in which an American (white) cowboy enters, through an act of penetration, into a disembodied, virtual space of erotic fantasies of the Orient. High-tech Orientalism enables the cowboy to “erase his body in orgasmic ecstasy…such sexual fantasies and conquest, for this orgasmic ecstasy constructs cyberspace…as a solipsistic space” (2003: 15). M.I.A. is not an “Imperial console cowboy” (203:18). Playfully and performatively, M.I.A. identifies herself as a post-national immigrant orphan-child while stating a cyberpunk mission to tear down the imperialist structures.

In Cybertypes, Lisa Nakamura offers a critique of the discourses that characterize, overly optimistically, the Internet as a borderless space in which users, like tourists, can easily consume the culture and image of the distant Other. In this new media terrain, Asians, especially immigrants, are digitally type-casted or “cybertyped” as “exemplary information workers” (2002: 24). “The presence of black and brown faces from other countries, notably Asian ones, encourages white workers to inhabit a virtually diverse world, one where local racial problems are shuffled aside by a global and diasporic diversity created by talented immigrants as opposed to ‘hyphenated Americans.’ This is a form of tourism, benefiting from difference in order to make the American/Western self feel well-rounded, cosmopolitan, postracial” (2002: 22-3).

Not true. Not entirely. The Internet is not one giant blob of space. In fact, there is not one single cyber space, as there are multiple cyber spaces. And there are borders and boundaries—software- and hardware-dependent—that bind and separate these cyber spaces. During my digital field research, I discovered a hard server divide when I was harvesting locale data of the Myspace friends of The Hsu-nami, a New-Jersey-based band. The “bot” (program) that I wrote “broke” in the process of web-mining. In troubleshooting, I found that Myspace is in fact, not as global as it has promised itself to be. The Myspace user networks of all countries in the world exist in a server located in U.S., with the exception of the users of Myspace China. Hosted by a server in China, Myspace China is itself own space apart from the rest of Myspace networks in “the world.”[1]

In my research, I follow Nakamura’s critical race perspective, except that I, as a cybernetic investigator, place my investigative focus on a cultural process, more reparative than hers. I concentrate on the exploration of the alternative terrains and their associated borders reconfigured by individuals of Asian descent. As described in my last post, I have worked, through a set of digital tools, to highlight both global and diasporic particularity, centralizing the perspective of in-between subjectivity of both “hyphenated Americans” and their immigrant friends. What I’m after is not a postracial, but a post-national network built by musicians of various Asian affiliations.

Like M.I.A., I’m an immigrant child who relishes in the post-national space proffered by the Internet. Less a rapper/punk-diva figure than M.I.A., I’m a cyberpunk ethnographer. Or better yet, I’m a cyberpunk cartographer working to reconfigure this space however susceptible to sexual fantasy and imperial conquest. In a way, I am working to reorient the existing fantasies and desires projected by imperial and corporate cowboys. I am taking pleasures in navigating within and mapping a world created and occupied by people like me: marked by category of “Asian,” “immigrant,” or lost somewhere in the cracks between other geographical and social boundaries.


[1] The software disconnection between China and the United States (and the rest of the world) on Myspace is maybe a product of the financial and political relationship between the countries. In order to follow up this inquiry, one could search news stories about company structure and changes of Myspace. For more detail, read David Barboza’s article “Murdoch Is Taking MySpace to China”, April 27, 2007. http://www.nytimes.com/2007/04/27/business/worldbusiness/27myspace.html (accessed on January 13, 2011).

pop culture & media research

Auf Deutsch? My Taqwacore Documentary Program Notes at Norient Festival

Back in October, Thomas Burkhalter sent out a call for music documentaries to be screened at the second annual Norient Music & film Festival on the Society of Ethnomusicology Listserv (SEM-L). I wrote back with an enthusiastic recommendation for Omar Majeed’s 2009 documentary film Taqwacore: The Birth of Punk Islam. Thomas immediately responded explaining that the festival programming committee had already booked the film. In the same email, he invited me to contribute a one-page program note to introduce the film and the bands covered in the documentary. I happily agreed.

Several weeks ago, after I came back from SEM (at which I presented my paper about mapping The Kominas’ digital diaspora), I composed a short essay based on some of my notes used in an introductory remark about The Taqwacores (Eyad Zahra’s feature length based on Mike Knight’s book The Taqwacores) screening at the Virginia Film Festival. I wrote my program note in English; and Thomas translated it into German. The essay is now posted. Here’s the article (auf Deutsch!) for those of you German readers out there. And for those you are fluent more so in English than in German. [And if you live anywhere near Switzerland, you should go check out the film at the Festival in January 2011!]

Having had the opportunity to get to know Omar Waqar and the members of The Kominas, I’ve come to feel a collective urgency in writing responsibly as a way to undo some of the earlier bad journalistic coverage of the bands involved in the nascent taqwacore scene. Academic writing takes centuries to move forward. Besides my analysis of The Kominas’ musical works in my dissertation, I have engaged myself in various non-academic taqwacore-related projects.

Norient is a collective of writers and ethnographers, loosely associated with academia, who contribute text and media documentation of the world’s fringe musical life beyond textbook terms and definitions. Thanks to Thomas for the opportunity to write on behalf of Norient. I look forward to collaborating with Norient in the future.

pop culture & media research

Searching for a Hakka Sound – Wu Sheng-Zhi of the Sunshine Band

In the last few years, I’ve been on a quest for music by Hakka people in Taiwan. My dad’s family is of Hakka descent. The Hakka people are known as migrants living in diaspora in East and Southeast Asia, more specifically, in various parts of Taiwan and China. Growing up, I always sensed and was fascinated by the Hakka ethnicity coming from my paternal grandparents. Both my grandparents (my grandpa=Ah-gung and grandma=Ah-ma) grew up during the Japanese occupation in rural northern Taiwan (south of the capital city Taipei). They would speak Hakka to each other only when they needed to communicate in privacy or intimacy. My father speaks very little Hakka as his siblings. I speak next to nothing in Hakka – knowing only simple phrases like “eating” and “rice.” My grandparents’ Hakka identification seems to me private whereas their Japanese acculturation seemed more exterior and public. Perhaps they associate their Hakka identity with their past, their early childhood and family.

This summer I attended conference for the International Association for the Study of Popular (IASPM) Music in Liverpool, UK. Serendipitously, I met and befriends a number of dear and friendly scholars associated with the Inter-Asia group of IASPM. They invited me in treating me as a junior colleague or young cousin/sibling. It was a fortuitous meeting of wonderful people and scholars of incredible resources and knowledge.

Among these scholars was 何東洪, H0 Tung-Hong. Yet another serendipitous turn – Tung-Hong lives in the town where both my grandparents were born and raised in. His wife is related to my Ah-ma’s classmate who later became a well-known writer. He introduced me to a number of musicians and groups that I hadn’t heard of. I bugged him with questions about the roots and historical practices of Nakashi. With patience, he told me a brief account of the history and iconic figures of Nakashi in Taiwan. He even wrote down names for me (because writing in Chinese has become more challenging over the years).

I was especially intrigued by early Hakka musicians. The name 吳盛智, Wu Sheng-Zhi came up. He was the leader, singer, and guitarist of the well-known rock group Sunshine Band (陽光合唱團). His band performed lots of “Western” songs (from British and American records) all over the island of Taiwan. He was also hired as a session musician for one of the three television broadcast companies. Wearing his hair long while playing his electric guitar, “like a hippie Hakka,” W sang lots of Hakka tunes in the style of rock music, combining the Hakka mountain songs (Sheng ge) with rock music. Through his access to mainstream media, Hakka music was transmitted and distributed widely. He released the first Hakka album Not Fated in 1981. Wu passed at the age of 39 in a car accident in 1983.

Googling him, I found a short youtube video about Wu. The voice-over is in Hakka. Thankfully, this video has English and Mandarin Chinese subtitles. Zealously, I hereby announce the beginning for my discovery of Hakka music. [UPDATE: These videos have since been taken down from Youtube…] These are videos left:

Lyrical ballad:

late 70s pop-rock:

on the more disco side:

Short TV documentary about Wu, narrated in Hakka, with English subtitles]:

And I found a few resources articles on Wu:
http://www.hakka.gov.tw/ct.asp?xItem=26338&ctNode=1561&mp=278
http://www.hakkaonline.com/xspace/viewnews-2155.html

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This entry was originally posted on Yellowbuzz on December 7, 2009.

pop culture & media research

The Kominas Play to the Wilderness of North America

What do I know about the Kominas? They are talented musicians with chops for concocting anthemic songs. As people, they’re individuals of immense passion for humanity. As punk rockers, they play music to defy social expectations, embrace the abject, and challenge global and local status quo.

I first met the members of the Kominas at a diner near South Station in Boston this past May. Bassist Basim Usmani threw his arms open to welcome me. Quickly our interview morphed into a party as the other band members and friends joined in. Beyond a typical “this-is-who-we-are”-kind-of discussion, our conversation was substantiated by their astute commentary on media, politics, and their impact on the Kominas and the “Muslim punk” scene associated with Michael Muhammad Knight’s book The Taqwacores.

Since their first “taqwa-tour” in 2007, the Kominas have created new musical directions and social connections. This summer, the band wrote a new song “Blackout Beach” for Waterboard, a play about torture. Crossing the genre lines, the Kominas performed in collaboration with hip-hop duo the M-Team and slam-poet Amir Sulaiman. In the midst of their recent national tour with Sarmust, they cut up a track with Brooklyn hip-hop freestyler Propaganda Anonymous. The tour ended last Saturday. The Kominas are now in studio working on a new qawwali-punk cover of Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan’s song “I Will Worship You My Love.”

Besides reclaiming what it means to be a South-Asian fusion punk band from the Boston suburbs, the Kominas have been busily building a community of like-minded artists and friends. Usmani said that the band aims to form “solidarity with all people of color, reaching out to those in the wilderness of North America.”


Meeting the Kominas

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This post was originally posted on August 19, 2009 on SPINearth.

pop culture & media

Is the pentatonic scale universal? Reflections on Bobby McFerrin’s Demo of “The Power of The Pentatonic Scale”

Virtuosic vocal improviser Bobby McFerrin “demonstrates the power of the pentatonic scale” at the World Science Festival in June 2009. He spoke on a panel called “Notes and Neurons: In Search of the Common Chorus.”

McFerrin gives the audience visual cues to construct a pentatonic scale. He said at the end of the demo that this exercise has worked for audiences in any part of the world. I’m a little skeptical of the universality of this scale. In fact, there are multiple pentatonic scales. What he demonstrates here is the major pentatonic scale. Pentatonic scale as a term is a European construction of scales that 5 tones. Also known as the ‘gapped scale,’ a pentatonic scale sounds different from the major and minor scales in most western classical music. Over time, this difference became associated with other differences culturally and socially defined: nationality, class, geography, phenotype, etc. For instance, in the early part of 20th century, Hollywood film music constructed an Orientalist sound based on a pentatonic scale and syncopation for the purpose of depicting non-western or “Asian” characters and setting.

I assume that this particular pentatonic scale demonstrated by McFerrin has gone around the world probably due to its application in recorded music, particular recordings made by US artists. Maybe this has something to do with these audiences being a McFerrin-identified audience. In that case, they could well be familiar with the US or western notions of “the pentatonic scale.”

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This entry was originally posted on Yellowbuzz on August 2, 2009.

pop culture & media research

Memories from the Fourth: The Kominas Collaborate with Like-Minded Hip Hop Artists

I’m still blown away by the memories and sounds left over from that night.

I had the privilege to partake of the intense collaborative moments between the Boston-based Kominas and their para-Muslim-identified compatriot hip hop acts The M-Team and Amir Sulaiman. The event was “the 4th of July New Muslim Cool Screening, Jam Session and BBQ.” An offshoot of the annual meeting of ISNA (Islamic Society of North America), this even took place at St. Stephen and the Incarnation Episcopal Church in northwest Washington DC.

Omar Waqar (of Sarmust and Diacritical) played a solo set pouring forth radiant love from his Sufi-inspired lyrical outcry. Basim Usmani came on stage and said, “there is the New Muslim Cool. But some people say that we are the ‘new Muslim bad.” The Kominas had a different lineup that evening with Basim and Shahjehan Khan on bass and guitar, respectively, and Imran Malik on drums and Elester Rechard Bostick-Latham on trumpet. They blasted the church auditorium with spiritual blasphemy. “Par Desi” and “Sharia Law in the U.S.A.” resounded. The Kominas hardcore fans skanked, slam-danced. I spotted some taqwa-converts in the audience.

The Kominas then collaborated with the Brooklyn-based Latino Muslim hip hop duo The M-Team (featured in PBS documentary New Muslim Cool) and the saintly poet Amir Sulaiman from Atlanta. The Kominas backed up the MC’s providing intense live instrumental sounds. The members of the M-Team took turns rhyming contestational words about politics around faith and race. Sulaiman then took center stage pronouncing heavyweight words about spiritual battles and social unrest. The evening ended on an emotional highpoint. A congregation full of social misfits, however defined, shared and expressed life’s discontentment while swaying, dancing, hollering, throwing fists in the air all enveloped within a spiritual cacophony. The spirit was triumphant; the music elated.


Omar Waqar


Imran Malik


Shahjehan Khan


Elester Rechard Bostick-Latham


Amir Sulaiman


Basim Usmani


The M-Team

More from this photo set.

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This post was originally posted on July 31, 2009 on SPINearth.